News & Media News Explainer: What does heat do to the body – and how does it kill?

Explainer: What does heat do to the body – and how does it kill?

Explainer: What does heat do to the body – and how does it kill?

Deadly heatwaves are on the rise around the globe. But exactly what does the heat do to us – and what’s the best way to stay cool? DEA’s NSW Chair and GP Dr Kim Loo along with other experts were interviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the last days of 2018, Dr Kim Loo did something she had never done in 30 years of treating patients: she wrote “heat” on a death certificate.

One of her long-time patients had gone out in a heatwave, and was later found dead back at his home in western Sydney. Heart attack was the official cause – he was 81 with cardiovascular and lung problems – but heat was “so obviously a contributing factor that I wrote it down too,” says Loo. “It shouldn’t have happened. It was heartbreaking. No one should die in a heatwave.”

Extreme heat has killed more people than any other natural disaster in Australia but experts say many deaths by “the silent killer” still go under the radar – even as they increase.

Today, Australia is one of the fastest-warming corners of the world, 1.5 degrees hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution, and this summer Melburnians and Sydneysiders are sweating through an unusually humid season.

In western Sydney, Dr Loo says, temperatures are often “6 to 10 degrees hotter than the rest of Sydney.” She describes the rows of black roofs, of baking fake turf and concrete, and few trees to keep out the heat. Penrith was the hottest place on Earth during the height of the Black Summer bushfires (although records tumbled again this January when the outback town of Onslow, Western Australia, hit 50.7 degrees).

Heatstroke is a medical emergency, adds Loo: “We treat it like a heart attack.” It happens when the amount of heat inside the body drives up our core temperature to a critical level. That’s beyond, say, a short-lived fever that the body might induce to fight a nasty infection. “The skin gets red-hot. Someone could get a dry, swollen tongue; they might be intensely thirsty; they’re often aggressive because their brain isn’t functioning properly; and others walk away not realising what’s happening, but from there it can go very quickly to seizure and loss of consciousness.”

Someone with heat stroke should be cooled down as quickly as possible. They may be rushed to hospital, where doctors may rehydrate with an intravenous drip.

Read the full story: Sydney Morning Herald

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